Age of Lawyers: The Roots of American Law in Shakespeare's Britain

Press Contact:
Garland Scott
(202) 675–0342 or
Esther French
(202) 675–0326 or 

New Exhibition

September 12, 2015–January 3, 2016

Washington, DC— Did you know that ten of the Massachusetts Bay Colony settlers who arrived in New England in 1630 were trained lawyers? Around the time of Shakespeare (1564–1616), the number of lawyers soared, affecting most aspects of daily life—and shaping major political and legal disputes that still influence American politics and government. 
In the 800th anniversary year of Magna Carta, Age of Lawyers: The Roots of American Law in Shakespeare’s Britain offers a close-up look at early modern law, politics, and legal culture. Personal letters, books, prints, and other rare materials recall the Inns of Court, where law students and lawyers lived and studied. Marriage settlements, alehouse licenses, pamphlets of famous murders, and handwritten and printed law books provide a new window on life in early modern England. 
Following the arrival of King James in 1603 and his assertion of supreme royal power, Age of Lawyers also surveys key conflicts and legal cases involving legal giants such as Sir Edward Coke and Sir Francis Bacon. 
Among the extraordinary works borrowed from other institutions are Coke's own, marked-up copy of the book that he quoted in a confrontation with King James and Thomas Jefferson's copy of a volume by Coke that describes and praises Magna Carta.
Highlights of the exhibition include early poems by John Donne, written in his years as a law student; a rare mention of a performance of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors at one of the Inns of Court; journals and letters of leading lawyers and judges; and royal proclamations, maps, prints, and portraits. 
Age of Lawyers also gives visitors the chance to explore many of the Folger legal manuscripts on display in further depth through newly digitized images and searchable, translated transcripts produced by a current Folger project, Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO).

Exhibition Highlights

  • A manuscript copy of two of John Donne's satirical poems, written during his years as a law student in the 1590s
  • A small, colorful book, created in 1617, when Sir Francis Bacon became Lord Chancellor, of the coats of arms of every Lord Chancellor from 1066 to Bacon, with some later additions
  • The journal of lawyer and famed antiquarian William Lambarde, chronicling his work as a justice of the peace in Kent from 1580 to 1588
  • An illuminated manuscript from 1325 of Magna Carta and English statutes
  • A marriage settlement from 1613, which like many such agreements was signed just before the wedding
  • A news pamphlet from 1617 on a "most desperate murder" at Lincoln's Inn, with woodcut illustration

About the Curator

Caroline Duroselle-Melish is the  Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Early Modern Books and Prints at the Folger Shakespeare Library. She has worked with a wide range of collections in university and independent rare book libraries, including serving as Rare Book Librarian at the University of Rochester and, most recently, as Assistant Curator at the Houghton Library, Harvard University. She has published on a range of topics associated with early modern printing, including studies of Ulisse Aldrovandi’s library and the trade relations between Frankfurt and Bologna.

About the Academic Advisor

Erin Kidwell is the Curator of Legal History in the Special Collections Department of Georgetown Law Library, where she has assisted many scholars, students, and legal practitioners in researching subjects in legal history, including the late Chris Brooks, the creator and original curator of this exhibition. As an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown Law, she offers two courses: British Legal History: from the Celts to the Industrial Age, 1-1890 CE, and Early American Legal History: From Settlement to Reconstruction 1600-1880. She regularly participates in seminars related to the history of British political thought at the Folger Institute. Erin Kidwell is the author of George Saltern’s Of the Antient Lawes of great Britaine (1605): Ancient Constitutionalism and the Origins of the Rights of British Subjects in Jacobean Union Texts (Talbot Publishing, forthcoming 2015).

In Memory of Professor Christopher Brooks, 1948–2014

A leading historian of English law, Christopher W. Brooks passed away unexpectedly on August 19, 2014, at the age of 65. Chris Brooks was the creator and original curator of this exhibition. Born in Maryland, he was a professor of history at the University of Durham in England, where he began teaching in 1980. He was a founding board member of the Law and History Review, the journal of the American Society of Legal History. His obituary in the British newspaper The Guardian noted that he was "acutely conscious of the common legal heritage with England that produced the US constitution."


Exhibition open Monday–Thursday and Saturday, 10am–5pm; Friday, 10am–8pm; and Sunday noon–5pm.
Admission is free. 
A guide to the exhibition for younger visitors is available.
Monday – Friday at 11am, 1pm & 3pm, Saturday at 11am & 1pm, and Sunday at 1pm 
Folger Docents offer guided tours of the exhibition, as well as the Folger’s national landmark building, free of charge. No advance reservations required. 
Group Tours 
Docent-led tours of the exhibition, as well as the Folger national landmark building, are offered for groups of 10 or more. To arrange, please call (202) 675–0395.


Folger Shakespeare Library is a world-class center for scholarship, learning, culture, and the arts. It is home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection and a primary repository for rare materials from the early modern period (1500–1750). The Folger is an internationally recognized research library offering advanced scholarly programs in the humanities; an innovator in the preservation of rare materials; a national leader in how Shakespeare is taught in grades K–12; and an award-winning producer of cultural and arts programs—theater, music, poetry, exhibitions, lectures, and family programs. By promoting understanding of Shakespeare and his world, the Folger reminds us of the enduring influence of his works, the formative effects of the Renaissance on our own time, and the power of the written and spoken word. A gift to the American people from industrialist Henry Clay Folger, the Folger —located one block east of the U.S. Capitol—opened in 1932. 



Press Contact:
Garland Scott
(202) 675–0342 or
Esther French
(202) 675–0326 or